Producers: Michael Kuhn, Nicholas Martin and Jane Hooks  Director: Guy Nattiv   Screenplay: Nicholas Martin   Cast: Helen Mirren, Camille Cottin, Lior Ashkenazi, Rami Heuberger, Rotem Keinan, Dvir Benedek, Elie Piercy, Henry Goodman, Ed Stoppard, Dominic Mafham, Ohad Knoller and Liev Schreiber Distributor: Bleecker Street

Grade: C+

The difference is almost surreal: Nicholas Martin wrote the screenplay for 2016’s “Florence Foster Jenkins,” starring Meryl Streep as the determined if talent-free diva.  He returns after seven years with a tale about another remarkable woman, the first—and until now only—female prime minister of Israel, starring another of the screen’s most formidable actresses, Helen Mirren.  But “Golda” couldn’t be more different from the earlier picture, as dark, drab and dour as “Jenkins” was charming, colorful and funny.

The film, directed by Guy Nattiv (2019’s “Skin”), doesn’t attempt to cover, even cursorily, Golda Meir’s long political career.  Instead it focuses on just a few weeks in her five-year tenure as Prime Minister—the period of the Yom Kippur War (October 5-25, 1973).  It’s presented as a flashback from the work of a post-war investigative committee headed by Chief Justice Shimon Agranat (Henry Goodman) looking into the events. 

It begins with Meir’s testimony about warnings from Mossad Head Zvi Zamir (Rotem Keinan) of an impending coordinated attack from the north by Syria and south by Egypt, disbelief on the part of her cabinet—most notably Defense Minister Moshe Dayan (Rami Heuberger)—and Meir’s decision to order a partial mobilization that proves insufficient when the surprise assault occurs, resulting in a near-defeat for Israel.  But recovery and counter-offensive come as a result of the level-headed action of Meir and Chief of Staff David “Dado” Elazar (Lior Ashkenazi) and the daredevil inclinations of Ariel Sharon (Ohad Knoller) on the ground.

Combining recreations of cabinet sessions with some archival footage (the film was shot in the UK and Israel in dank, gray tones by cinematographer Jasper Wolf, who employs Arad Sawat’s grim production design to create a grainy, claustrophobic effect, and edited at a somber pace by Arik Lahav Leibovich), “Golda” does a reasonably good job of laying out the events of the war from the perspective of the Israeli government—including not merely the back-and-forth of the military operations but the difficult diplomatic dance Meir had to conduct with Washington, particularly through Henry Kissinger (Liev Schreiber), to maintain American support while acceding to demands not to push things so far as to invite direct conflict with the Soviets, or poison U.S. interests in maintaining relations with the Arab world for the sake of oil.  It also takes time to portray the close bond between Meir and her personal aide Lou Kaddar (Camille Cottin), who among other things is instrumental in arranging Meir’s radiation treatments for the cancer she has long kept secret from society at large and her governmental associates in particular.

The sources on which Martin based his script are not explicitly cited, but the portrait of Meir that it draws is overwhelmingly positive: she’s depicted as a woman of steely will, going to great lengths to hide her frailty, who won’t be railroaded by anyone (even Kissinger, whom she eventually confronts to extract important concessions from Egypt’s Anwar Sadat despite the dangers to Israeli-American relations), though one who readily solicits advice.  She’s also shown as a leader personally stricken by the human losses she sees herself as having caused (a circumstance personalized in the suffering of one of her typists), carrying guilt for her mistakes. 

Given the passage of time, after contemporary criticism that led to her resignation in 1974 has dimmed, that view might no longer be as controversial as it once would have been in Israel; but Martin’s portrayal of Dayan and Elazar certainly will be.  Dayan is still thought of as a heroic victor of the Six Days’ War, but here he is shown suffering a virtual breakdown after Israel’s initial setbacks and pretty much incapacitated.  Yet Elazar, who was the only major figure dismissed as a result of the Agranat Commission’s findings (causing great protest at the time), is rather rehabilitated here, portrayed as a dedicated, competent IDF leader who worked hand-in-hand with Meir to stabilize the combat situation and turn it around. Some may also dispute the characterization of Sharon, who’s portrayed as a showboating egotist, though one not without personal courage and battlefield acumen; at one point Meir has to placate him with the assurance that he’ll get his chance to shine, and probably become Prime Minister one day because of it.

The supporting cast—including Schreiber, who nails Kissinger’s dryly manipulative manner if not quite his accent—is fine, but the film is really a showcase for Mirren.  Transformed by Karen Hartley Thomas, credited with hair and make-up as well as prosthetics design, the actress becomes a virtual double of Meir.  But more telling than the uncanny physical similarity is Mirren’s ability to capture Meir’s personality.  She mimics the stooped-over, solemn walk (which costumer Sinéad Kidao’s draping dresses accentuate) and the chain-smoking (barely interrupted even when on a hospital table), but more importantly the manner, which can shift suddenly from composed and grandmotherly to stern and commanding.  She also brings off the occasional shift to humor, as when she cajoles the visiting Kissinger into eating a bowl of borscht by telling him that her cook is “a survivor.”  It may not be a great performance, but it is a great impersonation, and makes complaints about her having been cast in the first place seem pointless; after all, the film would probably not have even have been made without her.            

“Golda” isn’t a great movie, either; it’s more of a sober, often stilted TV-quality docudrama about the Yom Kippur War that’s even less successful in dramatizing the complexities of the overall Arab-Israeli conflict than in suggesting the cunning of Golda Meir’s character in dealing with the 1973 surprise attack.  But Mirren gives it her all, and it’s nice to see her apply her talent to something meatier than “Shazam! Fury of the Gods” or “Fast X.”